By Simon Evans
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Less than three months after hitting a low when she had to pull out of Wimbledon injured, a determined Victoria Azarenka put herself in prime position to bookend her stellar season with another grand slam title.
The Australian Open champion jumped for joy after securing a 6-4 6-2 win over Italy's Flavia Pennetta in a U.S. Open semi-final on Friday that put her back into the final of the year's last grand slam for the second straight year.
It was far from a fluid display from Azarenka, who enjoyed victories at Doha and Cincinnati this year while losing in two other finals, but the second seed was delighted to get past a tricky opponent.
"I'm happy I'm in the final. There are always things that can be better. I felt like the first set was a little bit tricky - the momentum wasn't there," said Azarenka, who will face top-seeded Serena Williams in Sunday's final.
"But I felt like I had a great groundstrokes, everything. You know, just one shot wasn't working and threw my rhythm a little bit off‑balance.
"Just being able to pick up and raise the level in the important moments, that's what, you know, it's all about, to be able to do that.
It was a much different tune from Azarenka, who in June had said she "couldn't be any more disappointed" after pulling out of Wimbledon with a bruised knee before her second round match.
Azarenka and Pennetta both struggled to hold serve on center court with 13 breaks in the 18 games but the Belarussian's power was too much for the enterprising Italian, who returned from a serious wrist injury to reach her first grand slam semi-final.
"I had my chances. I didn't take them in the first set, but I was playing pretty good. She played really well, really consistently," said Pennetta.
"We didn't serve really well, either of us. But in the end she's powerful player. She had more power than me but it was a good fight."
There were five service breaks in a row before Azarenka held to win the first set after an intense battle where the unseeded, 31-year-old Pennetta saved five set points.
The second set followed a similar pattern, with three broken serves before Azarenka turned up the power, holding to go up 3-1 in the set and then breaking Pennetta, ranked 83rd in the world, with a powerful backhand winner.
Azarenka, 24, also struggled to make her serve count though, offering a glimmer of hope to the 31-year-old Italian when she went wide with a return on break point.
But once again Pennetta was unable to hold, twice finding the net to hand Azarenka the chance to serve for the game and despite a brave effort from the Italian, who produced a sizzling return down the line in the final game, Azarenka sealed the win with a well-placed forehand.
It was a valiant effort from Pennetta, a player who few could have imagined marching to her first grand slam semi-final.
"It was an incredible tournament from her, (great) to see her doing so well," said Azarenka. "She played really well. She was getting to the balls that sometimes I didn't expect to come back, and she really surprised me in those kind of ways.
"She was really solid. I just felt that I was able to play better and execute better on the important moments and really take my chances."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)